After the high of beating the World Champions, neanderthal tactics and selections by Martin O'Neill ensured that The Boys In Green could not match the Sunday heroics of our rugby team...
I had hoped that this edition of The Message would be written with a sense of unbridled joy. Everything, you might say, had been perfectly set up by Ireland's astonishing 1-0 win over Germany at the Aviva Stadium.
That victory was one of the most emotional in the history of Irish football. The game began in fear and trepidation, with a sense of almost inevitable doom hanging over the stadium. The Germans stroked the ball around with mesmerising effect. Having been there when the Germans last came to Dublin, and administered a 6-1 hammering to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Ireland, it seemed certain that it would only be a matter of time, before they got their noses in front. And once they did, and we started to chase the game, well, another tonking would be guaranteed.
But it didn’t happen. They carved us open on a couple of occasions, but the chances they created were spurned. And gradually, Ireland started to get a foothold. The game-plan may well have been to lump it long to centre forward Daryl Murphy, but there were some lovely, spontaneous passages of play too, during which Ireland held onto the ball, passed it smartly and got into dangerous positions. And there was what looked like a legitimate penalty shout when Jon Walters was bowled over in the box by the German centre-half Hummels.
It gradually became apparent that this was a different Ireland, with Wes Hoolahan in particular getting on the ball, keeping possession and bringing the other midfielders into the game. Suddenly Jeff Hendricks, James McCarthy and Robbie Brady started to play with confidence and Ireland began to look like a threat.
We all know how the script evolved. Shane Long came on and scored a brilliant goal. It was route one at its best, you might say, the ball fired forward by substitute keeper Darren Randolph – but so what? Every good coach knows that it makes sense to mix it up: long ball, short ball, big pass, small pass, and then one in between. The finish was sensational, as Long rasped it into the right hand corner of the goal, beyond the despairing dive of the world’s best goalkeeper, the peerless Manuel Neuer.
Watching from a perch high in the stand towards the Irish end, in the second half, you could see the intense concentration and discipline of Ireland’s defensive performance. Collectively they worked like Trojans – with Jon Walters in particular outstanding in both his workrate and the quality of what he did. But James McCarthy also seemed to finally come of age in an Irish shirt. And Wes Hoolahan was also a revelation, covering every blade of grass, defending superbly and on occasion insisting that – yes – Ireland too could play their way out of trouble, which they did.
When the final whistle went, the explosion of emotion was almost too much to bear. People danced, hugged, sang and laughed. There were even occasional tears shed. This was one of those magical nights for Irish football, an occasion when our players dug deep and found the reserves of skill and wit as well as passion and energy, to beat the current World Champions.
We were rightly set for a big night on Sunday, when Ireland travelled to Warsaw to take on Poland. A 2-2 draw would be enough to qualify automatically. And when they were in Dublin, Poland had looked no great shakes. True, in Robert Lewandowski, they have one of world football’s outstanding contemporary talents, but the Dublin clash, which ended in a 1-1 draw, showed that they were eminently beatable. Indeed if we played as well as against Germany, then it was hard to see us being bested. The only question would be: if we had to accept a draw, could we make sure it was the minimum 2-2 scoreline that we needed to qualify automatically? After all, we tend not to score a vast number of goals…
To take any such optimistic view, however, involved papering over some very obvious cracks in the Irish edifice. For a start, there was the very strange preference in Martin O’Neill’s original selection of Daryl Murphy of Ipswich Town, over Shane Long, to start the match against Germany. What did that say about Martin O’Neill’s attitude to the game – and the players? There was also the selection of Steven Ward at left-full back despite the fact that he had not played a single game yet this season…
What could be the basis for those choices? Maybe with James McClean suspended, Steven Ward was a gamble worth taking. He is an experienced international. He knows what is involved in the left back job. And if he looked sharp enough on the training ground then maybe it made sense, to push Robbie Brady forward into the left-midfield slot. But was Ward really in better nick than Marc Wilson, who can also play left-full? He is certainly less comfortable on the ball…
However you looked at it, meanwhile, the choice of Murphy as the main striker was thoroughly bizarre. Shane Long has been playing at a higher level for the past five years. He has pace to burn, meaning that he can get beyond defences and stretch them. He can play through the centre. And he can go wide to exhilarating effect. Plus, he works across the line like a demon on amphetamines, closing the opposition defenders down – on occasion using that electric burst of pace to unnerve them. I am not at all knocking Daryl Murphy. He is a good pro. But he is not in the same class, not by any stretch of the imagination.
The truth is that against Germany, Martin O’Neill and Ireland got away – just about – with those strangely quixotic selections. Fans of the manager might try to advance the theory that springing Shane Long from the bench made him that much more effective when he did come on, his speed being unleashed at just that moment when the opposition defenders were beginning to tire. But one of the golden rules of football selection is that you try to get your best players on the pitch from the start.
Eyebrows were raised again when the team for the joust with Poland was announced. This time, Wes Hoolahan was omitted, his superb performance against Germany apparently not counting for enough. There was a suggestion that Hoolahan expressed a doubt to the manager that he had enough in the tank to go again for 90 minutes; and there was talk of concern over a bruised heel – but that sort of injury can be dealt with by a pain killer. In the event, there was no one in the Irish team who seemed to be capable of getting his foot on the ball, which is what Wes Hoolahan’s game is all about.
The players reverted to footballing stereotype, with goalkeeper Darren Randolph following instructions by repeatedly pinging the ball forward in the general direction of Shane Long and Jon Walters, in the hope that one or the other would get their head to it. The Irish team played with great heart and Long did very well in the early stages. Shortly after the Poles took the lead, he bravely put his head into the firing line and won a penalty, which Jon Walters expertly side- footed home. 1-1. But when you keep giving the ball away, it comes back at you again and again – and so it did. A superb header by Lewandowski put Poland ahead…
With Ireland 2-1 down and chasing the game, Shane Long was injured. The footballing decision, at that moment, would have been to recognise the absence of quality that had bedevilled Ireland all night, bring on Hoolahan and push Jon Walters into the centre-forward role. Instead, the manager brought on Robbie Keane, whose role would be to look for scraps in the box from Irish knock-downs or Polish mistakes. Again, Robbie Keane is a great pro. But, with the best will in the world, he contributed very little over the final 30 minutes, barely finding an opportunity to get on the ball never mind firing a telling shot off.
There were only 18 minutes left when the Norwich midfielder finally entered the fray, and he immediately brought a little bit of added composure. But it was too little too late. Really, the die had been cast from the outset. Lumping the ball forward was never going to be enough on the night. Aiden McGeady, on for Whelan, conjured one bit of magic and pitched a killer cross in. Richard Keogh got on the end of it, but his header was directed straight at Fabianski in the Polish goal. Game over…
So where does that leave us? Our Euro 2016 fate may well come down to luck of the draw. If, for example we are lined up against Croatia, then we little reason to be optimistic. On the other hand, if it is Denmark or Bosnia, we might even be favourites. The suspensions earned by John O’Shea and Jon Walters will not help: both have been among our top men over the course of the tournament. But we have to get on with it.
There is a myth that is peddled by certain managers and football hacks alike, that Ireland simply doesn’t have the players to compete at this level. To counter that ridiculous assertion, all you have to do is point to the success of Iceland, who are top of Group A with one game to go, leaving the Czech Republic, Turkey and Holland trailing in their wake. This is a country, lest we forget, with a population of 300,000 people. And then there’s Northern Ireland, who topped Group F, with a population of 1.5 million. And Albania, second behind Portugal in Group I, with a population of 2.8 million. And Wales, second in Group B, with a population of just 3 million. Our population is 4.6 million and rising sharply. And we have a lot of good talented pros, who are playing at a decent level. Player by player we are stronger than Northern Ireland. And we are surely stronger than Iceland too.
The key, however, in international football, is organization, discipline and morale. The most important thing for any coach is to get a squad of players playing in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Clearly Iceland have done that. As have Northern Ireland. With the exception of the game against Germany, too often this Irish side, under Martin O’Neill, has actually looked less than the sum of its parts. It’s true, they play with great heart. They want to win badly, and they keep going till the bitter end. To give credit where it is due, Martin O’Neill has been vital to rekindling that spirit after the demoralisation of the Trapattoni era.
But it is not good enough to keep doing the wrong thing with ever- greater spirit. And this is what has been happening most of the time under Martin O’Neill. It has become increasingly clear that the Irish manager has a very old-fashioned view of how football should be played. Rather than encouraging the team to get on the ball and keep, and pass it, his philosophy involves employing a battering ram upfront to harry the opposition and knock them off their balance. It involves a greater belief in punting it long and hustling for scraps than in putting a series of passes together. It involves picking Glen Whelan – another good pro, by the way – ahead of Wes Hoolahan.
No one is saying that we should try to emulate the Spanish tiki taka style. We don’t have the highly refined technique required to carry it off. But we certainly do have the players to go beyond the stereotype – into which we collapsed ignominiously for much of the clash in Poland – of whacking the ball aimlessly out of defence, in the process giving it back to the opposition every time. If you keep giving it back, you will be punished – and we were.
The only time we looked like we might be in with a shout was in the final 20 minutes after Wes Hoolahan came on. Which is not to say that he is the reincarnation of Jesus Christ in a footballing guise. He will be injured on occasion and we will have to get on without him. But there is a fundamental distinction in footballing philosophy. Jack Charlton believed that a team was better to defend well and live off scraps going forward. He instructed his centre forwards not to jump to get their heads on the ball, but instead just enough to force an error from the opposition defenders. And he had his midfielders primed to pounce on every loose ball nodded half- heartedly in their direction.
Others, however, believe that you are better to pass and move till you get into a threatening position – and then strike. And that is the way the international game has gone.
The infuriating thing is that Martin O’Neill doesn’t seem to care. He’d prefer to have a big lad upfront and damn the consequences. Is there anyone else in international football management who would choose Daryl Murphy ahead of Shane Long? I suspect not. Or who would select two industrious holding midfielders in Glen Whelan and James McCarthy (a fine player, who I really admire), while leaving the squad’s most creative player Wes Hoolahan on the bench, home or away?
Well, all we can do is hope. That Martin O’Neill puts his trust in the players to pass and move and build from the back. That he puts the best 11 players available on the pitch. And that he gets them buzzing productively again for the play-offs as he did against Germany.
In truth, we have no reason to fear any of the other sides attempting to qualify by the back door; if Croatia were a brilliant side they’d have qualified automatically. I say we have the players. We have the quality. We have the passion. What we need are all three of these to be evident on the pitch at the same time – and we’ll be okay. We might just get that night of unbridled joy yet...
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